Many pilgrims hold the view that this is the most beautiful day on the Camino. It’s also my view, especially as I have a weak spot for both Astorga and Ponferrada. The cycling is challenging, but highly rewarding. Add to it the overwhelming beauty of the surrounding nature and you have the recipe for a perfect day.
The region you have entered is called Maragateria and is inhabited by the Maragatos, an ethnic minority of uncertain origin. Although Astorga is the main city of their region, the best places to taste the traditional Maragatos architecture are the small villages you are now going through.
The Maragatos settled permanently in this region in the 8th century and throughout the ages, they preserved a strong sense of identity.
Today this ethnic minority counts around four thousand people who still try to safeguard their traditions.
Their beautiful folk costumes are a tourist attraction and decorate most of Astorga’s traditional products.
The Maragatos villages you pass through on your way to Compostela are well preserved, although seem rather deserted. Murias de Rechivaldo has examples of typical Maragateria architecture. The village is built along cobbled streets and doesn’t have a market square. Houses are made of stones and are non-plastered; originally thatched, nowadays roofed with tiles. Murias de Rechivaldo with its stylized street lamps and tree-lined streets is a truly pristine village. It is worth cycling around.
The cobbled street turns into a gravelled path and the landscape around you changes dramatically. You are cycling on a plateau and can clearly see the mountain range in front of you. The landscape is mountainous without traces of human presence.
Rabanal del Camino lies at the foot of the crossing of the Montes de Leon, a mountain range whose highest peak Teleno, is 2,188 metres high. Because of its strategic location, at least from the Camino de Santiago point of view, Rabanal was an important town as early as the 12th century. The Knights Templars were stationed in Rabanal helping the pilgrims to get safely to Ponferrada. A hospital for pilgrims was established here as well as the parish Church of Assumption of Mary dating back to that time. Gradually the buzzing town fell into decline but got a second chance at the beginning of the 90s when London’s Confraternity of Saint James decided to open an albergue. A hostel for pilgrims was built in the converted parish building and took the name of Gaucelmo, a 12th-century monk who lived in Montes de Leon. For a few years, the awarded albergue was the only pilgrim accommodation between Astorga and Ponferrada. Then ten years later the Benedictines established the cloister. The town was given a new lease of life. Today Rabanal del Camino with its four albergues as well as the Gregorian chants in the local church buzzes again.
From Rabanal del Camino onwards is uphill all the way.
Cruz de Ferro. Gaucelmo, a humble hermit, builder of the pilgrim’s hospice in Foncebadon and patron of the modern albergue belonging to London’s Confraternity of Saint James in Rabanal put up the first cross at Cruz de Ferro. The monk topped an existing pile of stones, likely of pagan origin, with the cross. Then a new tradition was born. Pilgrims started to leave stones here, carried from the place where they set off on their journey – as a symbol of penance, problems they are wrestling with or other intentions. This old tradition is strictly followed even today. A small stone chapel next to the cross is dedicated to Saint James.
For some reason, I always have the impression that from Cruz de Ferro it will be downhill all the way. It won’t. The LE-142 climbs and drops until you reach Manjarin a spot that might look like a garbage dump at first glance but is rather an original pilgrim albergue.
The road starts to climb steeply for another 3 kilometres as you are on the verge of reaching the highest point of the Camino (1505 m). When you pass the transmitting aerial on your right, the road becomes flat(-ish) and soon will make a dramatic descent. The landscape is breath-taking as the road is really high, exposed and nothing obliterates the view. I really like the point where the road descends steeply, giving the illusion that it ends.
You are already acquainted with the LE-142 and know that this road has a predilection for bends particularly hairpin bends. So, bear this in mind when making the descent. Don’t release the brakes even if it looks flat – it’s not and you might have trouble stopping.
The 6 km section between Riego de Ambros and Molinaseca is the crème de la crème of the LE-142, meaning hairpin bend after hairpin bend, steep drops, attractive chasms, amazing landscape and certain death if you release your brakes even for a moment or stop concentrating. The road descends, and you will now see the mountains from a different perspective and at some point, you might feel like you are in South America.
On arrival in Molinaseca, leave the road and cross the river by the Medieval stone pedestrian bridge. Molinaseca is a quaint village at the foot of the Montes de Leon. The river Meruelo is banked up, forming a natural swimming pool.
Ponferrada (52.40 km from Astorga). The Templar Castle is the pride and joy of Ponferrada. As a matter of fact, only small parts date from Templar times, but for a real fan of The Knights like myself, one tile would be enough of a reason to visit the site. (The other trace of the Templars presence in Ponferrada is the humble crucifix in the nearby church of Saint Andrew. The crucifix of Romanesque origin is called Cristo de los Templarios).
The Knights Templar received the ruins of the Roman and Visigoth fort in 1178. The vast castle was completed by 1282 but sadly the Order was dissolved in 1312 with last Templars leaving Ponferrada in 1308, the year when an edict was issued against them. Lord Pedro Fernandez de Casto became the new owner who built a castle in 1343 that is now referred to as the “old castle”. The next owner, the Count of Lemos Pedro Alvarez de Osorio erected a luxurious palace in 1480 today called the “new castle”. The building soon became a bone of contention between the next Count of Lemos and the Catholic Monarchs, with Rodrigo Osorio losing and regaining the castle three times. The Count of Lemos finally lost his property but in retrospect, he won, as today’s visitor sees the castle in the shape given by his family in the 15th century. The castle is worth visiting and should also be examined from the other bank of the river.